Drum Teacher Was Scurrilous, Rude -- and Greatly Admired

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Here are a few things people have said about Walter Salb in the recent weeks:

"You know he's crazy, right?"

"Part of his facade was a very caustic personality, with a very caustic tongue."

"People who met Walter, they either loved him or hated him."

And these are the comments of his friends.

Walter Salb was acerbic, profane and quick to give offense. He humiliated people in front of parents, colleagues and lovers, and if you didn't see things his way, he was happy to explain them more clearly at the point of a gun.

Yet, in spite of more than a few serious personality quirks, he collected a devoted cadre of followers and friends.

"He alienated everyone," said Phil Trupp, a novelist and musician who knew Salb for 50 years. "Yes, he was abrasive. Yes, he made people cry. But everybody got over that. He got to be a monumental character in this town."

Salb was that rare Washington creature, a denizen of the urban night who avoided politics, except to heap scorn on whoever was in power. He was a jazz drummer, bandleader, composer, teacher and talent agent, leading a life that implicitly mocked the city's earnest, early-to-rise sense of self-importance.

"He believed there was only one 8:30," said Jimmy Proctor, a longtime friend, neighbor and student. "He never woke up early. He said, 'Nothing good ever happens before noon -- ever.' "

Salb was born in Washington, where his father and uncle were pianists who played in theaters and at society gigs, including at the White House. The younger Salb -- whose full name was Thomas Walter Salb Jr. -- graduated from St. John's College High School, then left George Washington University to be a professional drummer.

He worked as a sideman, led groups and played in show bands for touring singers. He performed everywhere from the Kennedy Center to strip joints. In 1998, he led his band, the Walter Salb Orchestra, in the recording "When Time Stands Still."

In the 1950s, Salb opened a studio on Flower Avenue in Takoma Park -- "the trashiest neighborhood in Montgomery County," he proudly told The Washington Post in 1979 -- and made it an all-purpose rehearsal and arts space.

"The studio was full of beatniklike characters," Proctor said. "To a kid, man, it was like so hip. This guy was just cool."

Takoma Park native Goldie Hawn briefly taught dance classes at the studio, but no one was more memorable than Salb. He had hundreds of students over the years and gave two lessons Aug. 10, the day he died of a heart attack at 79.

"I knew from a very early age I was going to be a drummer, and I knew Walter was the person to go to," said Allison Miller, a New York jazz drummer who began taking lessons from Salb when she was 10. "He was the premier drum teacher in the D.C. metropolitan area."

Sitting beside his students as they learned to play on his battered drum kits, Salb insisted on proper technique and taught the history of modern music through the evolving styles of drumming.

"Not only did he teach me how to play drums," Miller said, "he taught me about different kinds of music, art, literature -- he was an avid reader -- and he taught me how to approach life."

Students who talked back sometimes emerged from lessons with duct tape over their mouths. If ridicule didn't work, Salb had more persuasive pedagogical methods. Proctor, who studied with him for more than 15 years, recalled a metallic click next to his ear.

"I heard chick-chick , and there's a gun at my temple. He'd say, 'You want to play that again?' "

Salb could curse in endlessly inventive ways, constructing elaborate edifices of invective that would have been shocking if they weren't so comical.

"He was a poor man's Don Rickles, with profanity," said Robbie Magruder, who studied with Salb for eight years and later played with singer Mary Chapin Carpenter. "He could string these profanities together like nobody else I've ever heard."

Yet, in spite of everything, Salb had a devoted following. He stayed in touch with his students, found them jobs and seemed to care more about their careers than his own.

"He had a tendency to rub people the wrong way, but Walter called it like it was," Miller said. "Inside, he was the sweetest person in the world."

Even with all of his eccentricities, Salb was married for 41 years until his wife, Jerry Ann, died in 1991. They had two children.

Salb's 80th birthday was coming in November, so he decided to throw a party for himself in August -- "because you can't have a pool party in November," he explained.

He bought 24 cases of beer for the thirsty musicians dropping by before and after their jobs, and the party came off as planned Aug. 26 -- 16 days after Salb died.

Hundreds of friends and proteges converged at his house in Silver Spring, played music into the night, drank his beer and kept the party going until 7 a.m.

It was just the way he wanted it.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company